Sprint Nextel made a move on Thursday that should simplify machine-to-machine connectivity for its multinational enterprise customers, releasing an embedded router with both of the world's major 3G technologies built in.
The MB7900 router, from equipment vendor Top Global, includes hardware for both the EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) system used by Sprint and the HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) technology that provides 3G connectivity across most of the world. Enterprises with operations in many countries can buy MB7900s from Sprint and install them in many countries, using software to set the devices to use EV-DO or HSPA depending on what type of network the Sprint roaming partner in that country uses.
Machine-to-machine connectivity, used for functions such as wireless electric meters and constantly updated digital signs, is expected to be one of the fastest-growing parts of the mobile industry in the coming years. Other uses of the technology include wirelessly connecting security cameras, transmitting data from delivery and service trucks, and taking and fulfilling orders from an automated point of sale, such as a video rental kiosk. Sprint says it has certified more than 300 products for machine-to-machine applications over its 3G network.
Top Global, based in Lake Forest, California, has been making embedded 3G routers since 2000, according to Alan Zhou, Top Global's president and chief technology officer. Users have been able to extend its previous products to support both 3G standards by adding PC Card or USB modems. The MB7900 is based on the Gobi chipset from Qualcomm, which includes support for EV-DO Revision A and HSPA 7.2. GPS (Global Positioning System) is also built into Gobi. Top Global adds Wi-Fi, Ethernet, serial and USB interfaces. The unit is just 120 millimeters long by 90mm wide and 23mm deep, and weighs 350 grams.
Though Top Global offers multiple versions of the router with different physical interfaces to meet customer needs, all the units can support either EV-DO or HSPA. The modem can be plugged into devices such as digital signs using various physical interfaces and link up to the Internet or a private network via 3G. The device can use EV-DO on two different bands and GSM/HSPA on five bands.
Top Global is already putting an embedded router through the certification process for Sprint's 4G WiMax network, which it offers through partner Clearwire. Top Global demonstrated both WiMax and LTE (Long-Term Evolution) in devices late last year, Zhou said.
Cost is one of the biggest challenges holding back the nascent market for cellular machine-to-machine applications, according to IDC analyst Abner Germanow. One part of the issue is the cost of certifying multiple products for use with carriers in different countries, and products like the MB7900 should help out with that because the same unit can be used in all regions, he said.
"The more flavors of wireless that it supports, the easier it is for me to make sure I can hit whatever networks and whatever carriers I need," Germanow said.
Top Global, which sells its routers through system integrators and other channels in addition to carriers, said the base price of the MB7900 is US$499. It is available immediately from Sprint.